Why I’m talking about Tim Cook’s sexuality

By Felix Salmon
August 26, 2011

Every so often I put a blog post up, start getting feedback on it, and realize I’ve got things horribly wrong. And then sometimes, very rarely, the opposite happens: I put up a post and discover that I was more right than I ever suspected. My post yesterday on Tim Cook’s sexuality is one of those times.

Which is not to say that it’s uncontroversial. I’ve had significant pushback on it, and on the video above, from both inside and outside Reuters. The negative responses fall into a few broad categories:

Haven’t we moved on?

This is rarely accompanied by an elucidation of exactly what it is we’re meant to have moved on from. If it’s the kind of world where people are scared to come out at work, then, first, I’m sorry, but we haven’t. There are, obviously, no reliable statistics on how many LGBT people are out at their work, partly because “out” isn’t the nice, binary concept that a lot of journalists would seem to like it to be. (More on that later.) But I can tell you that I’ve had a lot of private feedback from gay professionals thanking me for my post, saying that it’s still hard for them to come out in the workplace, and that more open discussion and open acceptance of executives’ homosexuality is something we’re only beginning to work towards.

It’s still not normal, in most workplaces, to have an open and accepting culture where all gay employees feel comfortable being open about who they are and who they love. Apple, by all accounts, is very good on that front, and Steve Jobs’s other billion-dollar startup, Pixar, is even better. But the very fact that neither Apple nor Tim Cook has ever said anything about this aspect of his identity is a clear indication that people are still worried about it. The closet is an institution designed to protect LGBT individuals from scorn and hatred; without that scorn and hatred, it would not exist. It exists. And, lest we forget, neither the federal government nor most states gives equal rights to gay couples; in most states, including California, it’s still entirely legal for a company to fire someone just for being gay.

More generally, it’s still the exception rather than the rule for successful gay people in the public eye to be out. Some gay people who achieve success feel a responsibility to serve as role models and advocate for equality and public acceptance. That’s great. But what we see very little of is the people who simply don’t hide who they are, and who don’t make a big deal of it — the non-political gays. And the reason we see so little of it is because it’s a very tricky act to pull off. Instead, we have the institution of the “glass closet”. Which is clearly just a stepping stone on the path to full acceptance. So I think it’s reasonable to say that we’re a very long way from having “moved on”.

Why should shareholders care?

The number of things that shareholders care about, with respect to any given company, is as varied as the number of shareholders itself. But certainly there’s no particular or obvious reason why Tim Cook’s homosexuality is relevant to Apple’s shareholders, qua shareholders. As journalists, however, the media has a responsibility to more than just a company’s shareholders: its responsibility lies to the public as a whole. Including millions of gay professionals, their friends, their families, and people who aspire to being gay professionals. For these people, seeing Tim Cook rise to a position of such prominence and power is something to celebrate. If the media keeps that news on the down low, we’re therefore doing a disservice to that large and important part of our readership. Meanwhile, if shareholders don’t care, that’s fine. Most news is of no interest to most people. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be published.

What business is it of mine what Tim Cook does with his genitals?

This isn’t an issue of sex, it’s an issue of sexuality — a central part of who all of us are. It’s about attraction, and identity. Not genitals.

Now admittedly Tim Cook’s sexual identity isn’t any business of yours either. But it’s worth asking who exactly we’re protecting here. Tim Cook hasn’t complained about coverage of his sexuality, but a lot of straight people who don’t know him seem to be very upset about it. It seems a bit like the old attitude of “I don’t care what consenting adults do in private, just so long as they don’t stick it in my face.”

All too often, secrecy surrounding someone’s sexuality is imposed upon that person by the straight society surrounding them. It’s the “I don’t want to hear about it” attitude which reached its nadir in the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. Many gay professionals — I’m tempted to say most gay professionals, at least outside the creative industries — act very much in line with an implicit policy of don’t-ask-don’t-tell; coming out to co-workers is done individually, on a case-by-case basis, and acts as a sign of deeper friendship and outside-of-work socialization. And it contrasts quite sharply with the overt displays of straight employees who happily plaster their cubicles with photos of their spouses and children or unselfconsciously talk about the attractiveness of members of the opposite sex.

This is irrelevant, so we should ignore it.

Not when ignoring it is the problem. As commenter Hamranhansenetc said on my original post, “what you mean by ‘ignoring Time Cook’s sexuality’ is ‘pretending he is straight.’” It’s rude to do that. And skirting the issue of Cook’s sexuality only encourages and exacerbates that problem. As Hamran continues (you should really read the whole comment, it’s great), “In the larger sense, it does not matter that Tim Cook is gay and not straight. However, it does matter when the media pretend Tim Cook is straight and not gay. And that is what we are talking about here.”

Another commenter, RaidV92C, reacted a rather different way, but just as accurately: “This is not newsworthy, it’s west coast, liberal media, hollywood forcing homosexuality as NORMAL on the general public.” Yes. Exactly. Homosexuality is normal. And people who object to stories which cover an executive’s homosexuality as being as unexceptional as another executive’s wife and children are exactly the people who are winning if no mention is made of Cook’s sexuality.

Do we report that executives are straight?

Yes, all the time, especially when we talk about their families. And more generally straight is the default option — people are assumed to be straight unless we’re told otherwise. No LGBT person likes it when they’re assumed to be straight, but it happens every day.

Isn’t this a salacious invasion of Tim Cook’s privacy?

There is nothing salacious about someone being straight, or being gay. Insofar as you think it’s salacious, that’s because you think that being gay is somehow naughty, or shameful. Is this an invasion of privacy? To a certain extent, yes. More people know more things about Tim Cook now than they did a few weeks ago. That’s what happens when you become the CEO of Apple.

In any public corporation, there’s a small number of people whose jobs are outward-facing, and at the top of the list is always the CEO. He’s the public face of the company; if you see a corporate profile on the cover of a glossy magazine, chances are it will be illustrated with a big picture of the CEO. If you don’t want your face splashed across the world’s media, then you shouldn’t be CEO of a massively valuable company which touches millions of people. Sometimes, as in the case of Mark Zuckerberg, entire movies — and not particularly accurate ones, either — are made about you and your personal life. Reporting that Tim Cook is gay is absolutely nothing, in the invasion-of-privacy stakes, compared to The Social Network. But CEOs, especially CEOs of public companies, are public figures. Their salaries are a matter of public knowledge. When you’re a public figure, you lose a certain amount of privacy. And the higher your profile rises, the more privacy you lose. Tim Cook knows that; he knows that it’s silly to expect to be the CEO of Apple without the world knowing that he’s gay. So let’s stop pretending that we’re not talking about this subject for his sake.

Finally, one critical note I got went so far as to say that “I would think people who are gay don’t care” that Cook is gay. Which is almost hilariously, completely wrong. All the feedback I’ve got indicates, unsurprisingly, that LGBT people really care about this — they care about it a lot, and they want to see it celebrated as widely as possible. It’s perfectly natural to feel pride and joy when a member of your community rises to a position of great success and prominence.

I’ve been incredibly heartened by the thanks I’ve got from gay friends, gay acquaintances, and gay people I’ve never run across before, all saying that they wish there were many more people pushing this line of argument. And I was also heartened, when I talked to John Abell about this yesterday for the video above, that he thinks the same way: not only should the media cover Cook’s sexuality in a more matter-of-fact way, but that they will, as well. Cook himself need do nothing.

At the same time, though, I agree with Nicholas Jackson that it would be great if Cook was more open about his sexuality. The glass closet is not an unpleasant place to be. The more transparent the glass, the less likely you are to have people making you uncomfortable by assuming that you’re straight. And at the same time, by never “officially” coming out, you get to avoid having to talk about your sexuality in public — something very few people like to do.

It’s sad and rather silly that gays have to make some kind of formal and official statement about these matters; certainly straights don’t. But without such a statement, as we’ve seen, the media gets cold feet talking about sexuality, and perpetuates the stigma associated with homosexuality. A very common response to my piece from journalists was to question my sourcing: how did I know that Cook is gay? Do I have first-hand knowledge? (No, and if I did, I would never have written my post.) Do I have reliable sources? (No, I’m simply passing on information which is in the public realm, just as I do with dozens of other pieces of information every day.) And isn’t it unethical to talk about something unless you know for sure that it’s true?

What’s unethical, I think, is perpetuating the false idea that Tim Cook is straight — an idea which, it turns out, many people had. One person said it was “disappointing” that I disabused her of that notion. Why she should be disappointed to learn this news I can only guess, I haven’t asked. But honest journalism has to be honest. If I allow you to continue to believe a falsehood, that’s a form of dishonesty. And I, for one, am not comfortable with that.

Comments
63 comments so far

“As for how someone’s gay partner might come up in conversation? Pay attention to the pronouns.”

Sure… Except that I really don’t gossip much at work. (Yet another example that privacy and secrecy are different?)

“it’s up to you, TFF, to do something to indicate that it’s OK by you if this important person is a person of the same sex”

Hopefully by continuing the conversation naturally using whatever pronouns and phrasing the person I’m talking to used? Relationships are complicated enough that anything else is dangerous.

What is the alternative? Stopping the conversation, wide-eyed, and declaring, “Oh, you’re gay!” And then telling them, “But really, that’s okay with me. That’s perfectly fine. I have lots of gay friends, and would love to set you up with some of them.”

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

Imo, shareholders should care about whether or not a company creates at least a neutral environment for LGBT individuals because a) you don’t want to lose talent and b) at some point, legal prohibitions against discrimination are going to expand to sexual orientation, and you might as well get on board now. Additionally, while I recognize that a company’s responsibility is to its bottom line and its shareholders, I diverge from Milton Friedman in thinking that corporations also should do the right thing.

Posted by weiwentg | Report as abusive

If something is entirely personal and utterly irrelevant (this is both), “investigating” it, turning it into a topic of public debate, is just a tabloid-style violation of privacy.

The right to privacy is in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and is explicitly protected by the US Constitution. That one is the CEO of a major company does not vitiate that right in matters irrelevant to the performance of one’s duties.

The assertion that not debating the topic will perpetuate “the false idea that Tim Cook is straight” is amazing. It is objectionable not merely because it is irrelevant, but because it is such a tortuous twist of illogic put forth as an excuse — a feeble one, at that.

No-one, journalist or otherwise, has the unilateral right to publicize what is private, and utterly unimportant to the public at large, contrary to the wishes of the individual concerned. It is inappropriate behavior in a civilized society. It’s why we object to hacker groups and why online commentary on the demise of the News of the World is almost universally “good riddance.”

Bringing up this subject *at all* has turned a completely unimportant, nobody-cares irrelevance into an artificially generated “issue,” to the benefit only of the journalist, no-one else.

That is not ethical. It is despicable.

Posted by gngcreative | Report as abusive

“The right to privacy is … explicitly protected by the US Constitution.”

Really? Where? Which clause? which article? Some judicial decisions have found a right to privacy IMPLICIT in the constitution, but they have had to talk about “emanations” and “penumbra” in order to do it. And you do know the difference between “implicit” and “explicit,” right?

It any case, although that right is understood to protect one’s sexual activity, prophylactic decisions, etc., … it has never been understood to impede anyone else from talking about those aspects of one’s life.

If “privacy” is supposed to be a right to shut people up it sounds like tyranny.

Posted by Christofurio | Report as abusive

It is simultaneously hilarious and disgusting how many of you are being quite explicitly homophobic while apparently fully convinced that you are the good people. There is absolutely nothing wrong with observing and writing about a known fact, and it is a known fact that Mr. Cook is gay. There is, however, something very wrong with pretending that writing about this is wrong.

Why is it wrong? Answer that. And be honest, for a change. For every single one of you, the real answer is that you, personally, are uncomfortable with confronting the blatant heterosexual privilege in the society you live in. You are uncomfortable with admitting that, yes, we straight people get an awful lot of advantages merely by being straight. But you don’t want to admit to your discomfort, so you hide it behind nice-sounding platitudes. You blather about privacy, or decency, or you pretend to be offended for Mr. Cook’s sake.

This is an important subject that shouldn’t be hidden away. The reason being that homosexuality is not the least bit abnormal or indecent. It is you closet homophobes (for lack of a better term) who are the real problem, not Mr. Cook nor the article author Mr. Salmon.

Posted by MrMath | Report as abusive

MrMath: “There is absolutely nothing wrong with observing and writing about a known fact, and it is a known fact that Mr. Cook is gay.”

Is Tim Cook, himself, the authoritative source of this “known fact”? If so, do cite chapter and verse.

Posted by uponrefelection | Report as abusive

Still legal to fire people for being gay? Even in California?

I am flabbergasted. How come every gay American doesn’t just jump to Europe? Here it is illegal to refuse a gay couple a hotel room because they are gay.

But anyway… “The closet is an institution designed to protect LGBT individuals from scorn and hatred”

Only half true. I know quite a few gay people who are pretty at ease with who they are in social and professional life, but who wouldn’t want to explain it at home. The closet exists for all sorts of reasons. Many of them exist largely in the closet builder’s mind.

Posted by Dafydd | Report as abusive

Felix wont be happy until all gays are wearing little pink signs around their necks declaring that they have the flavor for fellatio.

If you know Felix just a little bit, you know that it angers him to no end that folks CHOOSE to keep their sexuality private. Felix equates privacy with shame and that it is HIS moral obligation to expose the truth, regardless of the consequences or the wishes of his subjects.

This is typical of gay journalists; they resent those who hide in the closet and retaliate with a keyboard and blog.

Felix, you angry little man, please crawl back under the rock or rectum you came from. We don’t care.

Posted by dpw516 | Report as abusive

dpw, why do you assume that Felix is gay? Has he said so? (Admittedly I haven’t read everything he has ever written.)

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

dpw516, Felix didn’t say any such thing. Your stupid first line shows what a dork you are… and perhaps homophobic as well? I think you might be the reason this post is still necessary. (trying to reaffirm your macho by hiding behind your remarks and bravado and belittling others )

So you know Felix? Why would you make a new account for Reuters? Why not post under your usual name? Why not just make yourself known then and “come out” and debate rather than berate?

Felix isn’t the angry little man here, I assure you dpw516…

Posted by hsvkitty | Report as abusive

What level have our journalists fallen to if they are treating “ohhh look, he’s gay (snigger)” as important journalism? Whilst a robust business will certainly have a diverse and inclusive workforce which will embrace all, regardless of age, gender, belief, status, orientation etc etc, do we have to peddle this as a news story? Sure, the world moves on and we are in a different place to where we were in 1851 but peerleeze, let’s not align ourselves with the gutter press and let’s write the stories that make a difference to the world. Felix – write us some real news! I’m sure you’re capable. If you want to draw a salary each month with a clear conscience, add some value back to the business and tell us about Apple’s business strategy. Keep your petty thoughts about Cook’s personal life to a non Reuters blog.

Posted by Gerbils150 | Report as abusive

Steve Jobs must have picked his best choice. So why worry about a person’s ‘other side’ without fist waiting for delivering what the new man is supposed to?

Posted by adreutex | Report as abusive

MrMath.

You challenge people to posit why they are ‘against gay’ lamenting they would have no argument – and then you say imply that to be anti gay must mean that one is a ‘closet gay’.

Your upside down premise (‘Mr Math’???, really???) of asking people to provide ‘valid arguments’ and then spewing something such stupid and childish positions that don’t deserve a reasonable response – in fact only validates how you and the ‘gay agenda’ are miserably ideological.

I’m not making an anti-gay statement.

I’m making an anti-gay supporter statement.

You losers claim ‘morality’ and then go on to make absurd claims.

Homosexuality is a disease. It is the misalignment of gender, and sexual orientation. Just as most complex forms of behavior are learned – they can be unlearned. We are in fact biological machines – and we will one day have the ability to create an adaptive environment that creates outcomes we desire – including sexual orientation.

That we don’t yet have the ability to correct homosexuality, and that gays can live otherwise healthy and normal lives, does not change the fact that it is a medical condition that would otherwise be cured.

100 years ago, were someone to have discovered a cure, or therapy for ‘gay’ that worked – gay simply would not exist for the most part, certainly not the extent that we have a disproportionate minority of bit&es in the media raving about it all day.

Posted by jammer11 | Report as abusive
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